From the South Seas by Margaret Mead

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

From the South Seas is primarily a scientific study, but it is also a commentary upon Western societies in comparison to more “primitive” societies. The author begins Coming of Age in Samoa with the statement that scientific experiments in the usual sense cannot be performed on human beings and that societies as large and complex as those in the West have so many variables that few clear conclusions can be drawn. For this reason, small, homogeneous societies are chosen for study.

The studies themselves cannot be totally objective. As Mead admits readily, even scientists bring their own preconceived notions with them whenever they study another culture. The tribes studied in these three books are so drastically different from Western ones, however, that by studying their ways, much can be learned about humanity in general.

Mead’s conclusions have certainly come into question by later generations of anthropologists. Many other societies have been studied since these books were written, and many other startling behaviors and beliefs have been found. The author herself continued her studies long after these books were published, and she altered some of her views in the process. Nevertheless several remarkable statements stand out. These are most clearly stated in the concluding remarks of Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies.

In that book, three very different societies were studied. The gentle Arapesh held both men and women to be naturally gentle, lovers of children, and nonaggressive. The cannibalistic Mundugumor considered members of both sexes to be naturally warlike, aggressive, and distrustful. The Tchambuli assigned different emotional and spiritual factors to the two sexes, although these are in many ways the reverse of the two roles that Western societies generally impose upon the sexes.

Mead draws some very definite conclusions from this comparison. If three societies, closely connected geographically to one another but largely separated from the developed world, can come up with three such drastically different ways of looking at sexual roles, then assumptions about men and women in terms of temperament and behavior are based on societal expectations rather than on biological necessity. An aggressive Arapesh of either sex might be at home among the Mundugumor, while a gentle and caring Mundugumor, outcast in his or her own society, might be at home among the Arapesh. Cultural standards lead to assumptions about men’s and women’s places in society.

Nevertheless, there are many other possible ways of considering the problem. Mead places tremendous emphasis on...

(The entire section is 625 words.)